Sunday, May 18, 2008

Books that Changed My Life

No, not a list from me. This was the last of the PEN World Voices events I went to. It featured Annie Proulx, Olivier Rolin, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Catherine Millet, and Yousef Al-Mohaimeed. It was moderated by Paul Holdengräber, who is the guy in charge of public programs at the main branch of the NYPL.

Holdengräber began by simply asking: Do books change our life? Do we want to be changed? Molina talked about a book he recommends to his students which is about ants. He said that it's important because writers tend to be self-absorbed and think the most important thing in the world is books. Proulx mentioned that the author of said book had bad eyesight, forcing him to get very close to the ants. Molina said that writing is about focusing on something very small and making it large. You need to pay attention to the world. Writing should give an idea of this complexity because the world itself is so interesting.

Each writer then spoke briefly, at Holdengräber's request, about the book that changed them the most. For Molina that was Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! which he read when he was twenty and in University, the year Franco died. It showed him a way of putting together the private personal experience of the present time and the repressed past he heard so much about from his parents and grandparents. The past is not an archive but a network of voices telling a part of a story. And the telling of a story is part of the story in and of itself. Holdengräber asked if the book was important to any of the other writers and both Proulx and Rolin said it was. Proulx said that Absalom, Absalom! is not her favorite Faulkner, nor was it the first she read, but that Faulkner's writing in general was important to her for the skill of the writing and the juxtaposition of rough dialogue and regionalism. Rolin, who used an interpreter, said that it was the power of words themselves to speak as opposed to one voice that influenced him.

Millet (who, as I mentioned before, also uses an interpreter) said that it was the book she wrote herself that most changed her life. And also that it is not completely unrelated to the book about ants. It was often compared to the work of an entomologist. She and Holdengräber then spoke a bit in French and then she said that the novel she would choose is The Lily of the Valley by Balzac. She was 13 or 14 and on the radio her parents listened to they often read excerpts they often read excerpts from famous books of the 19th century. She heard part of this one and recognized it as Balzac. The fact that she had recognized it made her proud--she felt as though she had a complicity with literature others did not have. Holdengräber asked why that book. She said that when she first read it the fact that topology plays a major role had an impact on her. Landscape is a metaphor for the relations between characters (as in Proust) and she thinks she was sensitive to this when young but not capable of expressing it. When she read it as an adult she found the story of the older woman's agony really striking. As with the Faulkner, Holdengräber asked if the book had mattered to anybody else. Rolin said that he is not a lover of Balzac. Molina said that he loves Balzac and he learned the possibility of allowing stories to develop over several books--to be larger than books--from him.

Before Al-Mohaimeed spoke Holdengräber mentioned that he'd at first had a list of 10 books, then winnowed it down to 5, and finally to 3. Al-Mohaimeed had an interpreter but chose to speak in English anyway. He said that when he was 8 years old he had no television because his father considered it to be religiously forbidden so he would go to see his favorite team's matches somewhere else. His sister would read him Arabian Nights and the magic tales gave him different ways of thinking about and writing literature. Then Japanese haiku made him pay attention to small things. And finally he read Zorba the Greek when he was 18 or 19, taking notes and coming up with questions. This awakened him and moved him to uncertainty and expanded his horizons from his former narrow-mindedness.

Rolin also chose to speak in English, apologizing for not speaking it well (his English was fine). The book he chose was Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. He said that he doesn't think any book has the dramatic power to change one's life. Some books together--like an orchestra--have that power. Lowry's book was the voice most loved in that orchestra. It deals with the love of physical things, the forces inside man that compel him to betray himself. But it is also filled with humor.

Holdengräber mentioned that Proulx kept recommending books he'd never heard of. The book she settled on though was Before Adam by Jack London which she read when she was 7. When she went to school she was disappointed in reading because it was so dull in school. So reading this book which was about prehistoric man was eye-opening for her. She and the narrator both felt they were different for other people, etc. Although it was not a good book it presented the idea that there were people before her--cracked open the world of ideas and door into intellectual curiosity and showed her that there were all kinds of things to be found in books. Also it looked very adult so she was proud to be carrying it around.

Holdengräber then asked the writers what they thought of the idea of a book changing someone's life. Proulx mentioned the idea of being lifted out of your life when you open a book. Molina then talked about the beneficial impact of books that aren't that good in and of themselves. For example 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Mystery Island. He talked about how, when he was reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea he realized for the first time that books are written by someone and that he wanted to write books himself. He wanted to be invited to Cpt. Nemo's submarine, but didn't know what he'd do on Sundays since he couldn't attend mass.

Millet then said that looking at the question more literally, as a child the idea of writing literature was a way of changing one's social class. Proulx agreed, saying that she came from a working class family and books, language, literature seemed an exit route not only into other stories but literally into another life. Molina pointed out that literature doesn't happen in a void and that for people in the working class just having access to books means a great deal.

Al-Mohaimeed spoke more generally, saying that while no books change your life completely there are books that build your life from time to time. Also that it is sometimes difficult to say why one likes a book.

Holdengräber noted that they had all chosen novels or stories and asked why that was. Proulx said that essays can be edifying or fascinating but not transformative. Holdengräber asked about the effect of Nietzsche's The Will to Power on young men, and Proulx said, "temporary, don't you think?" Molina said that there can also be books that change your life for the worse.

Holdengräber quoted Kafka, saying:
If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside us.
Molina said that words are free. He doesn't accept the idea that books can be as devastating as the death of someone we love. We shouldn't exaggerate. They cause neither as much pain nor as much joy as real people. We would be fooling ourselves to thing they do. Millet talked about Man Ray and how he tried to do a work of art that would cause people to drop dead but couldn't find it. She said that everyone has his or her own metaphors and the metaphor of the ice-axe is a romantic one. She does think, though, that a book can help when we are going through hard times.

The floor was then opened for questions from the audience. Someone asked if the Bible or the classics had been important to the writers. Proulx said only Catullus. Millet said that as a child going to Catholic school reading the Bible was very important. She didn't go back and read it as an adult but having read it as a child influenced her reading later in life. Rolin said that reading the Bible and the Greeks influenced his writing in a way that made it to full of pathos. But it was also the Greeks that led him to Under the Volcano because the epigraph is by Sophocles.

The final question was whether the writers had any stories about their books changing other people's lives. Molina told a story about a man who had written to him saying that his wife had read one of his books and now felt that she wanted and deserved the kind of love in that book and felt that her husband wasn't providing it. Molina sent her a different book of his with a note about being careful with literature.

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